Tuesday, April 7, 1970, is a milestone in Hollywood history. For it marked the beginning of the end of one of show business' most fabled unions: Taylor and Burton, Liz and Dick. It was the night that Richard Burton lost the Best Actor Oscar to John Wayne.
Burton was sure his sixth nomination for Anne of the Thousand Days would be his last. Hollywood was changing. Instead of glossy, big budget films like the ones he and Taylor headlined, the public was now flocking to smaller, modern movies like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy. He realized that he and Elizabeth were becoming passe. This was his chance to finally win an Oscar, and he wanted it badly.
It wasn't that Burton felt he was more talented than his wife. Quite the contrary. He always said Elizabeth was "the greatest cinematic technician ever" and that she taught him how to act for the camera.
It was that, for all his natural gifts and hard-won success, he was tormented by the choices he'd made. He turned his back on his father -- Richard Jenkins -- and took the name of his guardian and mentor, Philip Burton, because Philip could help him escape Pontrhydyfen, the poor mining community of his youth. Then he left his loyal wife, Sybil, and two daughters because he wanted to possess the most famous woman in the world.
He felt guilty about what he called "le scandal," the chaos his relationship with Taylor caused. The jewels and furs, the private planes and yachts, the boozing and brawling. The excesses of "The Liz and Dick Show" kept him from Shakespeare and the stage work that once seemed his destiny. He had been touted as the heir to Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. He had greater fame and riches than Larry, John or Ralph, but he hadn't been knighted.
Burton believed that an Oscar would be tangible evidence that it all had been worth it. By 1970, he was sick and tired. Literally. At 45, he was suffering from liver damage and arthritis. He was deeply disappointed in the scripts he was being offered. He dreamed of retiring after he won the gold statuette. He had recently received an informal offer to lecture at Oxford, and believed that once he won an Oscar he could walk away from acting and try for a more discreet and sober life.
He and Taylor were having marital difficulties. Since their world-famous love affair had begun in Rome eight years before, "Liz and Dick" had received unprecedented scrutiny from the world press. Now they were experiencing pressure within the film industry, too. Except for Anne of the Thousand Days, their recent movies had been flops. And as they moved into middle age, they had to cope with the universal and inescapable heartbreak of aging loved ones. In the spring of 1970 they were still reeling from the sudden death of Taylor's father, Francis, and the paralysis of Burton's idolized older brother, Ifor Jenkins, who suffered a broken neck at their home in Celigny. In the isolation and stress, they turned on one another.
So Elizabeth, too, hoped that if he had the Oscar he wanted so desperately their lives would improve. She gamely launched a campaign to win him the award. She'd been working since childhood and had a lot of friends in the movie industry. She believed that if she and Burton could present a united front and cooperate with the Hollywood establishment, he could win an Oscar of his own to accompany her two.
She began by trying (not altogether successfully) to curtail her own prodigious drinking in support of her husband, who was on the wagon for the first time since he starred in Camelot on Broadway back in 1961. Then she came home, moving her family from Europe back to Bel Air for awards season. She made herself available for interviews, including one with Burton that aired on 60 Minutes. She reached out to the Academy, letting them know she would be happy to participate in the Oscar telecast (she presented the award for Best Picture). She had her famous 70-carat Taylor-Burton diamond made into a pendant so she could showcase it on Oscar night. She asked Edith Head to design this lilac chiffon gown especially for her. The sentimental and superstitious Burton donned red tuxedo socks, honoring the red dragon on the Welsh flag for luck.
And yet Burton still went home a six-time Oscar loser, married to a two-time Oscar winner, and their relationship continued to unravel at an accelerated rate. Their fights became even more frequent and more bitter. Fueled by her alcohol/drug/medical problems, his renewed drinking and self loathing and their mutual crappy career choices, the stress fractures gave way to an earthquake. Though they would each marry two other partners, there is no doubt that this relationship represented the love of their lives. I wish they had been able to admit they were alcoholics in 1963 instead of 1975 for Richard and 1983 for Elizabeth, who was also battling addiction to prescription medication. Perhaps, with counseling but without booze, they could have lived happily ever after together.
Though he was disappointed by his Oscar losing streak, Burton turned it into an amusing anecdote, explaining that he was the only actor to lose to TWO drunk cowboys. In 1966 his embittered Spy Who Came in from the Cold lost the Oscar to Lee Marvin's Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou. Then his Henry VIII lost to John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn.
He would earn a 7th nomination for the movie Equus. That night he went to the Oscars with a new wife, Susie Hunt, and lost to Richard Dreyfus in The Goodbye Girl. With those 7 losses he ranks second on the all-time losingest actor list. Only Peter O'Toole has him beat with 8 losses. But then, O'Toole lived to get an honorary Oscar, while Burton died while still in his 50s, and didn't live to enjoy those end-of-career accolades that elder statesmen receive.
A review of Burton's Oscar-nominated turns is so impressive that it's a shame today he's remembered more as a paparazzi target and tabloid staple than as a unique and wonderful screen presence:
• My Cousin Rachel (1952)
• The Robe (1953)
• Beckett (1964)
• The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
• Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
• Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
• Equus (1977)
For what it's worth, my favorite Burton performance wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. Back in 1959, he starred in Look Back in Anger. He's charming, intense, poetic and furious. For his searing portrayal in this intimate, low budget British film, he was nominated for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA. Alas, he didn't win those, either. But he did capture a corner of my heart.